Renaming the (Global) War on Terror

From the Military Times:

The House Armed Services Committee is banishing the global war on terror from the 2008 defense budget. […]

The “global war on terror,” a phrase first used by President Bush shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., should not be used, according to the memo. Also banned is the phrase the “long war,” which military officials began using last year as a way of acknowledging that military operations against terrorist states and organizations would not be wrapped up in a few years.

Committee staff members are told in the memo to use specific references to specific operations instead of the Bush administration’s catch phrases. The memo […] provides examples of acceptable phrases, such as “the war in Iraq,” the “war in Afghanistan, “operations in the Horn of Africa” or “ongoing military operations throughout the world.”

This could have three effects.

  1. On one hand, as the Wall Street Journal’s editorial staff notes, this helps those democrats who want to divide the battles of the war into small, discrete, less important pieces so they can subject the overall effort to a death of a thousand cuts.

    What the Democrats object to, however, is the idea that it is a “global war.” In particular, they are trying to sell the fantasy that Iraq is a discrete problem with no relation to any broader conflict–so that surrendering in Iraq would have no deleterious consequences for U.S. national security.

    It would be nice for Americans (albeit brutal for Iraqis) if the U.S. could simply cut its losses and abandon Iraq. But it seems to us there is far more wisdom in the holistic approach of the “global war.” America has failed to engage its enemies, or tactically retreated when the going got tough, repeatedly since Vietnam: Iran in 1979, Lebanon in 1983, Iraq in 1991, Somalia in 1993.

    There is ample reason to think that these shows of weakness–or, more precisely, of irresoluteness–emboldened America’s enemies. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, provided strong–at the time, seemingly irrefutable–evidence that taking the easy way out did not enhance American national security.

  2. On the other hand, the phrase Global War on Terror is suboptimal. It is demonstrably false or meaningless. Terror is a tactic, not an enemy. It is an abstract noun, just like Crime or Drugs or Childhood Obesity. Wars against these abstract nouns appear to be un-serious because of the term used, however serious the goal might be. In my experience this is the first objection most leftists have to the War on Terror. This is a war on a tactic. There is not even an enemy. They are right. Is there a better name that names a concrete enemy that can be named, defined, and opposed?
  3. I’m out of hands, but the third effect of changing the name is confusion. Changing the term in mid-stream will confuse people. Is the war on terror the same as the global war on terror? We’ve already suffered from this renaming confusion with the War in Iraq. Why would the U.S. stop chasing after Bin Laden and the Taliban before the enemy was crushed? And why would they take on a different enemy instead, especially one that had a personal beef against the father of the U.S. president? Without a brand that encompassed the entire range of action it could be named by peacemongers, jihadist facilitators, and communist agitators. They called it a war for oil, a grudge match, a Halliburton plot, a rejection of the Powell doctrine, and a war against Islam.

Much of the “failure” of the War on Terror has been a reluctance to package, brand, and sell it. George W. Bush has no poetry in him. He cannot orate like Churchill or Roosevelt. He is a very smart man, not the dummy he is often caricatured as. But, as should be obvious by now, he isn’t the right salesman for this effort. The salesman hasn’t been identified. Nor has America, with perhaps the greatest storytellers, advertisers and marketers in the world, produced a coherent narrative, let alone a compelling argument for the rest of the world to join us in the effort.

It’s long past time that Wars against abstract nouns ended. They should go to the same trash can that Czars of bureaucratic departments in representative governments should go. The world has already had one Caesar who transformed a Republic into an Empire and does not need another. Nor does the world need any more Wars against abstract nouns.

I do have a fairly convincing argument for leftists who ridicule the War on Terror because of its name. I simply point at Iran and ask what they think of the possibility of Iran setting off a nuke in Tel Aviv? How many hundreds of millions if Muslim men, women, and children would die simply because there are some very powerful Muslims who wouldn’t blanch at sacrificing an entire nation state to hurt their enemy? It’s suicide bombing writ on a grand scale. And would it stop there? Could we, the developed Western world, let it stop there? Or would it lead inevitably to nuclear destruction of Islam?

I reject the partition of this conflict in which we find ourselves in small and presumably short wars because it will lead to the abandonment of our allies before the work is done. We have to conduct a global counterinsurgency. The first political requirement for a counterinsurgency is to convince everyone that the counterinsurgency will win, and that this triumph is inevitable. So far we haven’t even managed to convince our own citizenry or media that winning is inevitable, let alone the rest of the civilized and barbaric world.

For the triumph of the counterinsurgency to be inevitable, one of two things must be. Either the insurgency is weak, which is manifestly untrue for al Qaeda, or they have already been beaten. This defeat could be recent, or it could be distant in time. Our enemies never forget a defeat or an insult. We should use that weakness against them.

What Muslim terrorists threatened a large part of the world, with fortresses in Egypt, Syria, and Iran, were opposed by many legitimate Muslim rulers, and were eventually crushed by Hulegu Khan, a Mongol who inflicted the greatest defeat that has ever been inflicted on Muslims, and finally fled east to Afghanistan and Pakistan? They were the prototypical terrorists and the stuff of nightmares. I write, of course, of the Assassins.

If I had my druthers, I would re-christen the GWOT the War Against the Assassins. Jihadist terrorists are assassins under the English language definition. So the name is true, strictly speaking. The historical assassins were militant jihadists of a Shia sect, which makes this name insulting to rabid, Qutbist anti-Shiites like al-Qaeda. That’s a plus. And when we use it about the Khomeinist terrorists of Hizballah and the Sadr Brigades, it is doctrinally accurate as well. The Assassins terrorized the Middle East from the 8th to the 14th century, approximately 600 years, sending the message that nobody should underestimate their modern-day successors. They are the focus of romantic adventure stories. People love to talk about them, and everybody knows they are bad. Nobody wants to encourage real assassins.

So, let it be the War Against the Assassins, and let Osama Bin Laden be the new Old Man of the Mountain. And then see whether Muslims run to join up with the latest revival of a movement that was discredited within Islam 600 years ago.

Maybe it’s not a bad idea to rename the Global War on Terror after all. Think about it.

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